Friday 29 May 2020

Two Weeks in The Vanoise National Park.

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Another trip from way back 30 years ago. Not a backpacking tour this time but mountains climbed from a static base in Pralognan, a small alpine town with a campsite in the French Alps. You can do a five day hiking trip through the Vanoise region, which has spectacular scenery and  large impressive mountains but on this occasion we decided not to do that. The park was created in part to protect and save the Alpine Ibex, seen here in this statue- an impressive mountain goat as large as an antelope with huge curved horns. Luckily, they seem well used to people and have a calm demeanor as they are powerful animals and could do you a lot of damage if they wished.
Pralognan sits in a deep valley surrounded by peaks that resemble shark's fins. Like these two here- Grande Gliere, 3392 metres, and Petite Gliere, 3322metres... or around 11,500 feet.  Which looked promising....
And this one, photographed during a summer thunder and lightening storm.. which looked scary. It was such a thin, fragile looking arete you could almost see though it in the right light. No one in our group suggested climbing it. Once again this was a July fair trip but this time we got two full weeks of unsettled weather, A lot of daily rain, some big thunderstorms- hot sultry days then colder almost Scottish weather with cloud and drizzle that turned freezing at height.
For this reason we did not do much at high levels. We did a fair amount of day walks into neighbouring valleys, mostly low level, then explored some balcony trails- waiting for the weather to improve. I didn't mind doing low level walks as it was still rural France, a new beautiful area to explore, and the alpine flower meadows and butterflies were incredible. On one of the few days we did get good settled conditions we managed to climb the Aiguille de la Vanoise, a 2796 metre, 9,100 foot shark's fin ( in English 'The needle of the Vanoise'). This is it on the right.
Another view of 'the needle' from the 11,000 foot Vanoise Snowfield, a vast icy dome of permanent snow and the 2nd largest example of this type of feature in the entire alps. We did manage a wander across this vast snow dome but it turned windy and cold halfway across it with mist and drizzle increasing- like a very bad Scottish mountain day in mid-winter so we turned back before frostbite set in. This is a 'Thank God' photo... our first clear view coming out the mist off the snowfield and realizing we were safe again and could relax.
Walking across the reflective shallow lake in the pass above Pralognan.
A Diff rock climb up slabs saw us attain the knife edged arete halfway up the shark's fin of the Aiguille de la Vanoise.
A summit view. With a sheer drop of over 1000 feet on both sides of this mountain the only way to protect this traverse was to loop the rope around any prominent rock blades on the ridge. Climbing in teams of two, in the event of a fall or slip, the second climber should jump off the other side if his partner fell, thus theoretically acting as a counterbalance and brake. Luckily, that was not put to the test.... as I was not very keen to jump into space off this mountain. I'd already decided I'd rather be dragged down the easy Diff side than step off a massive overhang on the opposite side. The 3855 metre, 12,900 foot Grande Casse in the background.
The sofa sized summit of the Aiguille de la Vanoise. Room to swing a marmot.... just about.
A couple of days later we had a go at Grande Casse. Being alpine novices we left our ascent too late in the day as it should have been a pre dawn start but we were still learning. With a five to six thousand foot ascent ideally we should have left in the dark but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
By the time we reached the glacier running up the central couloir of Grande Casse we had a thin layer of soft melted snow, warmed by the sun, sitting on top of hard ice beneath. Our crampons did not bite into the soft snow much yet did not find the lower belt of hard glacier ice either which made upward progress harder than it should have been.
This photo sums that up. An alpine beginners mistake. Scottish climbers not used to hot early morning sun and summer starts in darkness to beat the glaciers melting by lunchtime. Stonefall was also an issue here with ice and rocks occasionally bouncing past us as we ascended.
We had a decent go at it but lack of alpine experience at that time, coupled with poor weather coming in again meant we turned back before the final summit ridge. I'd seen photos of this snow arete in the guide book we had and did not fancy traversing such exposed and steep upper slopes in bad weather so we turned back.
A wise move as visibility decreased under darkening skies and colder temperatures. You really need experience under your belt in bad weather conditions to take on the snow covered alpine peaks and at that time we didn't have much.... or any idea of what the landscape was like above us. A lucky escape.
John in the beautiful French town of Annecy. Plane to Geneva, local bus to Annecy where we stayed one night then on to Pralognon the next morning. Annecy with its river and canals resembled a mini Venice and a cracking place to visit. The nearby Lac d' Annecy has tourist boats, surrounding mountains, and a vivid glacial colour tint. Much more spectacular than the Lac at Geneva, even with its high water fountain at one end.
The weather in the Vanoise had been fairly unsettled but four of us still had one week of our trip left.
We decided to take a train a couple of hours east and north to Mont Blanc, at 4,808, 15,775 feet, the highest mountain in western Europe. A view of the Mont Blanc Range here and the Mer de Glace glacier with its distinctive banding. Would the weather improve and would we be able to climb it?
Would our luck hold out? Around 100 folk a year die on the Mont Blanc range even today. ....It's frequently labelled one of the world's most dangerous mountains due to the range of hazards and the sheer numbers climbing it... many not fully experienced or expecting the potential conditions possible on a high exposed summit.  Would we succeed?            To be continued.

Friday 22 May 2020

Alta Via 1. Monte Pelmo Ascent. A Bambino Could Do It. Via Ferrata. Part Two.

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A day later in our walk across the Italian Dolomites on the Alta Via 1 we reached a hut directly under the base of Monte Pelmo, one of the giant mountains of this region. We spent the evening in the hut trying to find out any information we could about the climb but apart from one line 'Monte Pelmo: A long and tiring ascent, if an easy one.'  in our guidebook and a post card of Monte Pelmo with a dotted line snaking up it, available for sale in the hut, we gleaned nothing else. We could order beers in Italian, ask about campsites, but that was about it and no one at this hut understood much English on that particular day.
The post card view. This side of Monte Pelmo, the one directly above the hut, at least looked not entirely impossible, if still steep. Other than that we didn't have a clue what was ahead of us. Being a backpacking tour we didn't have ropes, ice axes or crampons but the summit slopes looked to be clear of snow.
The next morning we set off... and the scrambling started almost immediately ... a zig zag line up a steep mountain wall. Attacco was our only clue to the start of the route, no one else around as it was an early start. Fortunately Brian, who rock climbed several grades higher than us, up to E1 level, took the lead, which gave us confidence.
Technically, the scrambling was easy... mostly walking along a narrow ledge system... but as the exposure grew.... and the ledge climbed higher then ran straight across the vertical walls of Monte Pelmo... it took on an entirely serious aspect.
One misplaced step or stumble here and you would be falling a very long way to the green meadows below. It was still easy scrambling but being a first ascent for us, with no clue as to how hard it was round each corner it was a memorable one.
In places it was so exposed you could skydive off this narrow ledge, filled with loose stones underfoot, and soar into mid air, taking minutes  to contemplate your own death on the way down before you landed. And amazingly.... not a sign of any via ferrata, confidence boosting fixed ropes, or anything else to hang onto other than bare limestone and a few scattered pitons where you could put a rope hand line if you had one. No other hillwalkers either. We had the mountain to ourselves mostly. I wonder why?!!!
And then... on one of the crux sections on this long exposed traverse... with overhanging cliffs above and screaming exposure below... we spotted the bambino... a little toddler... about three years old... happily walking along this ledge system with his unconcerned parents.....
or at least that's what it looked like when I got the photos back....our friendly base-jumper was correct... a bambino could do it...
I compared Monte Pelmo to a giant, heavily eroded, white dice in the last post, which is true viewed from some angles with its steep vertical edges falling thousands of feet but here, on this side, the only 'easy' way up this amazing mountain, think of it as a high backed school chair. We had just traversed across the vertical legs and now we found ourselves in a dazzling white limestone scoop of the seat section. It's not called God's Throne for nothing.... and looks like it from afar.
Thankfully this was easier, just a faint but well defined path up scree and a few small ramps to negotiate cliffs. But this was not a mountain to relax on. It's still the scariest hill I've ever climbed in my life. Even these photos give me the creeps all over again. This is the ascent/descent route right behind me... and the thought of going back down to that vertical drop of thousands of feet to find a narrow ledge leading back across the cliffs filled me with dread. It still gives me the creeps thinking about it to this day.
Brian or John here, as close to the edge as he's willing to go. Unbelievably, the drop on the other side was even higher. I can't imagine anyone coming up here in winter, covered in snow, but apparently a few brave or crazy alpine mountaineers do. If you bag peaks in the Dolomites you need seriously big balls. I suppose you get used to this level of exposure but for me, even after 100 mountain rock climbs and dozens of Scottish scrambles it was intense and right at my limit. Yet I would not be surprised to find someone has carried skis up here to ski down the upper bowl, given how extreme the limits are for the best in that field. Climbing/ski mountaineering that is. One ascent was enough for me.
There was also a hell of a lot of loose rock around, dust and scree on every ledge... just what you want near a vertical/overhanging drop of 5000 feet.
The summit ridge. I can see why Italian's are religious....climbing mountains like this every weekend or holiday.... as I started speaking to God as well for one of the very few times in my life... promising inwardly that if he saved me from falling off this unbelievable lump of ancient sea bed I'd be a good little boy in future.
and thankfully we did survive. After Monte Pelmo we split up. Brian wanted to finish the Alta Via 1, clocking up 9 to 10 hour walking days in the process, whereas myself and John fancied a gentler pace once we got to Cortina d Ampezzo, a small mountain town and a hub for via ferrata enthusiasts. After Monte Pelmo we wanted to relax. So we went our separate ways but agreed to meet back in town on our campsite once Brian had finished. Market on a high road pass above.
John on a protected wartime path. During World War One there was intense fighting in these mountains between German and Italian troops and you can still see numerous remains of tunnels, carved ledges, and trenches dug out of these limestone coral walls. Hard to believe they were under the ocean at one point.
Although the next set of photos might look scary or exposed it was nothing compared to the levels of fear I experienced on Monte Pelmo. This was a breeze by comparison as we had wires, ropes, and ladders for safety in the event of a slip or fall. Just an enjoyable romp over several via ferrata routes above Cortina. A fantastic base for hill-walkers. World War One tunnels here.
An alpine hut with a huge cross above it. John on a via ferrata. We did the Paternkofel protected wartime path. De Luca- Innerkofler and the Paternkofel Wind Gap Path for anyone interested. Plus the Ivan Dibona High Level path... and Brian was back in time to join us for that one.
Snakes and ladders on a via ferrata.
Another vertical wall climb but easy and enjoyable rather than terrifying. Amazing the difference a wire makes to confidence.
Even the free solo stuff, see the small figure out on a ledge here, was not as frightening as Monte Pelmo's stark and threatening verticality- more friendly feeling somehow.
John happy on an easy via ferrata to a summit. Averau and Nuvolao. (German guidebook spelling)
These colourful swinging one person capsules instantly reminded me of the film Barbarella for some reason... and also the Alisha's Attic song of the same name- one of my favourite 1990s groups. It was a quick way up to a via ferrata route rather than slog up the scree slopes of what looks like a downhill winter ski run. The Dolomites being a popular and spectacular winter ski resort often featured on Ski Sunday TV shows.
Crossing the highest bridge in the Dolomites here. Dead easy. Via ferrata routes can get you into situations and places you would never dream of going.
Away from the via ferrata routes though, as here, it's still a scary place if you take a wrong turn.
Brian rejoined us for our last couple of days in Cortina and managed to bag a couple of via ferrata with us. The team reunited once more. A hut built into a mountain wall here, protected from snows, lightening strikes, and howling winds. Steep path up to it.
Inside, due to the chairs, it had a fairy tale quality.
Brian on another via ferrata route, this one if I remember correctly containing a long rising tunnel boring up through the mountain in the distance. A wartime tunnel 600m long. (A torch comes in handy.) Paternkofel. Monte Paterno. Sexten Dolomites group. The separate upright pinnacle, clearly seen here, being the 'frankfurter sausage.' This part of the Dolomites is close to the Austrian Tyrol border.
The end. What a great trip. Thanks to Brian and John for the company.

A 5 minute video here of the ascent of Monte Pelmo. These guys are very fast and make it look easy. Probably done it before or used to dolomite levels of exposure. One slip or stumble on that traverse and you are dead though. Probably due to increasing popularity or a higher degree of public safety awareness in modern times several fixed rope sections exist on this ascent by the looks of it. On our climb, over 20 years earlier, it was empty of any confidence booster worth the name but even today it still demands a good head for heights and steady footwork.

Monday 18 May 2020

ALTA VIA 1. Italian Dolomites Hike. Part One.

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Another backpacking holiday trip from yesteryear when I had the energy, legs, and body to crawl over 10,000 mountains in 80 degree heat for 6 to 8 hours a day. Two weeks in the Italian Dolomites this time in mid July. Plane down to London, flight to Rimini on the Italian Adriatic coast, over night in a youth hostel then train to Belluno at the start of the walk. As usual we didn't start the hike until the afternoon as it took time travelling through Italy on the train so darkness fell before we reached this first hut. We ended up bivvying out under the stars in a deep, narrow, damp gorge below it about an hour short of this hut- a not ideal location, dark, dripping, and gloomy even in sunshine, but luckily the only things crawling over us all night were harmless but hand- sized spiders. Sort of daddy long leg types with peanut sized bodies suspended on long limbs.
The near vertical cliffs above proved to be our next challenge as a famous via ferrata starts just above this 7th Alpini Hut and is the sporting start or conclusion of the Alta Via 1. One thousand feet of vertical metal ladders, narrow ledges, and exposed scrambling later saw us attain the notch between the Pelf and Schiara and dump our heavy packs down to get a well earned rest. There is an easier alternative avoiding this first mountain range obstacle but having done years of rock climbing and scrambling back in Scotland we were sure we could take on the direct route over these two mountains. And so it proved.
My companions on this trip were Brian and John, two long time hill-walking and rock climbing friends from the club.This is the sight that awaited us on the other side of that first high  mountain wall- range after jagged range of steep mountains, the dazzling white limestone not doing much for the camera as a lot of the photos came back overexposed. And cameras were not as advanced then either to capture views like this clearly.
The dolomites are stunning though. A totally unique district of mountains sandwiched between the fertile Po valley and the Austrian Tyrol. This is John admiring the rock spires of Monte Tamer. A mountain massif that leans over at an angle, long before the tower of Pisa imitated it. The Alta Via 1 weaves a sinuous route under these sloping towers.
The Alta Via 1 is the classic 120km high level 10 day walking route between Belluno and Lago di Braies. We walked it south to north and it's a fantastic hike, as, unlike a lot of other routes we had done abroad once you climbed up to around 1000 metres or 4000 foot high it tended to stay near that height rather than plunge up and down into valleys every day. It made the walking easier yet took us through the heart of some fantastic scenery, weaving past spires and Gothic confections of rock architecture.
Even the smaller peaks, like this one, were stunning. And there are hundreds like this in every direction.
At times the route weaved under high cliffs, keeping to its level line as much as possible, like a railway has to thread through a landscape without encountering any steep inclines....
at other times it hugged a high ridge-line above a substantial drop, but unlike Corsica, this was a good wide path throughout and easy to follow. I really like the Dolomites. Fantastic walking area.
For the first couple of days it weaves around the various peaks and we could either camp near huts or stay remote from civilization in the wilderness as this stretch was empty of people and very wild- after the via ferrata section  hardly seen another soul hiking in this region.
Looking towards the Nuvelou peak at dusk. Amazingly there is a mountain hut on the top of this summit in the distance and we were heading there next.

Unfortunately, to get this dusk view we had camped lower down, seen here, on a grassy meadow, then walked 15 mins up to the top of the pass for the evening panorama. When we returned the local free ranging cows had found our tents and one had put it's foot through mine in our absence, causing a sizable rip in the side wall. They like to mock fight with each other and some get frisky so it was not deliberate, just an accident, which I managed to patch up with some tape. After satisfying their curiousity they wandered off to munch more grass.

By the afternoon of the next day we had reached this distant hut. A popular viewpoint and half day walk from a road pass so busy with tourists and sun lovers. We didn't mind the crowds here as we had been in a wild area since Belluno and could now get snacks and soft drinks at the hut. This is the view from that rock peak summit, taken just outside the Nuvelou hut. The lighter, further away, peak in the distant centre is Monte Pelmo, 3168 metres or 10,394 feet high and one of the giants of the district.
Like the Matterhorn, Monte Pelmo is one of those peaks that immediately captures your attention and mesmerizes you whenever you see it. A vast white cube of limestone- like a 10,000 foot high dice that over millions of years has eroded, slipped, and cracked slightly but is still a distinct cube in origin from certain angles. An Italian base jumper had recommended it when I'd asked his advice for a spectacular but easy peak to climb the day before. He pointed to it in the far distance. " Bella Monte Pelmo!!! he roared. Simpatico!!!! Bellissimo!!!!.... but you must climb this mountain boys- promise me you will!!! One of the finest peaks in Italy yet a bambino could do it!!!

We had laughed at his enthusiasm and promised we would have a go at it... but the closer we got to it the more serious and daunting a prospect it looked. Another view of it here in menacing shadow. Child's play indeed.
Mind you, all the Italian mountains along the Alta Via 1 looked daunting. This is the 'wall of walls' the Italian version of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite. A vertical cliff well over 1000 foot high and several km in length. Our base jumping pal had happily thrown himself off the highest summit here as well which didn't necessarily endorse him as a hiker on the same wavelength of difficulty as us. Maybe his 'bambino' was a ten year old E 3 climber.
Another view looking back at it. The 'Wall of Walls.'
This is us wild camping with the vast bulk of Monte Pelmo ahead. We hoped there would be a slightly less vertical /easier way up round the side we could not see here. Tomorrow we would attempt to climb it. A slightly troubled sleep that night for some reason....